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There is no real substitute for a detailed knowledge of the original text. Below are commentaries on three key sections of the Wife's Prologue and Tale (two from the Prologue and one from the Tale), which illustrate the kind of areas you should be considering. Try to pick out a few other sections, which you could use to illustrate important points.
The opening of any text is important. It illustrates the major themes, establishes character and attempts to engage the attention of the audience - in this case, both the Wife's audience of pilgrims and us.
She launches into such an extraordinary tour-de-force that any audience is bound to be carried along. The first word 'experience' is important. She is going to reveal her experiences - always a winner with an audience - and to use these to draw conclusions about such matters as the relationships between men and women, the nature of marriage and the role of women. Experience is far more important to her than any scholarly writings. She is prepared to challenge the 'auctoritee' of the church, which taught that women were weak and sinful and dictated the morals of the age. For Chaucer to allow any of his characters to challenge the Establishment was rather controversial. In this case the challenge comes from an outspoken middle class woman!
What effect do you think Chaucer was hoping to achieve here?
Bear in mind his criticisms of the corruption of the medieval church elsewhere and the humour he injects into situations involving his characters.
Her attitude to marriage appears rather ambivalent. On the one hand she speaks about the "wo that is in mariage" whilst thanking God for her five husbands a few lines later.
Look for reasons in this passage, for her support of the state of marriage.
Why might her attitude be rather ambivalent?
Clearly she feels defensive here about having been married five times: she frankly admits that she has been criticised and told that one marriage is enough. (The church taught that remarriage, even in the event of a partner dying was wrong.) We know enough about her to imagine how she would have reacted and this provides humour.
Frankness characterises not only the opening but also her entire prologue.
Is this why we sympathise with her rather than condemn?
She openly admits that she cannot understand certain doctrinal points (look at line 20), but this does not prevent her putting together a forceful, common sense argument, albeit one which is flawed. She is knowledgeable about the Bible and interprets the scriptures in her own peculiar way - often rather too literally.
Is she a skilled debater? What methods does she use here? Is she persuasive?
There is a certain humour in these lines and we are sometimes laughing at her expense and sometimes with her. She shoots down centuries of biblical doctrine with a burst of common sense. Her casual remarks about how good it would be to emulate King Solomon in lines 38-39 and that she is probably on the look out for husband number six (which might send some pilgrims running for the hills) are both funny and refreshingly honest.
How do you think some of the other pilgrims would have reacted to her? Does this provide humour too?
The voice of the Wife comes through clear and strong in these lines. Sometimes she rambles from one point to another, sometimes she argues forcefully. Although he is writing in verse, Chaucer makes it read like informal speech. How does he do this?
The Wife pauses to reminisce about her behaviour in her previous marriages and admits how much she enjoyed embarrassing her fourth husband by telling her friends about his intimate secrets. She is coarse and vulgar. What does this suggest about their relationship? In many ways this 'confession' to her friends parodies the way medieval Christians confessed all to the parish priest.
The confession continues in her description of her activities when her husband is away from home. Notice the way she attends religious occasions, pilgrimages and vigils, wearing her best scarlet clothes, to keep an eye out for her next husband.
There is a sense of self-justification here as well. Can she be excused do you think?
We should not be surprised that she admits to having a kind of insurance policy, having lined up the next husband before the last has departed. She is a shrewd operator in matters of love. In many ways it is a double or even triple insurance policy. She walks romantically through the fields flirting with her victim and wearing down his defences. She is forthright about her future plans and the effect he has on her. She also makes up the dream to convince him further. Bear in mind that the dream connects love with sex and money, the latter two of which seem more important to the Wife.
She appears to have lost track of the thread of her argument in line 585. Such comments serve to increase the realism of the story telling. She soon regains her composure however, giving us a dramatic, highly visual and amusing account of her fourth husband's funeral.
Should we be appalled at her lack of feeling? If not, how does Chaucer achieve this?
The mention of her 'appetit' in line 623 and the boastful, euphemistic mentions of her sexual prowess valued by her partners indicates once more her coarse approach to life. She excuses herself by stating that she is a prey to her birth planets - Venus (love) and Mars (warlike, fierce). Chaucer's audience would certainly have understood this. Even today people seem fascinated by their horoscopes.
Is she making excuses for her lack of restraint? Do we feel sorry for her? Are we appalled by her or secretly admiring of her honesty?
The knight, having delivered up the answer to the Queen's question of what do women desire most is now at the mercy of the old hag who wants to marry him.
This section clearly illustrates Chaucer's skill in comic writing. Much of the humour springs from the dialogue between the old hag and the knight. We can imagine all too clearly his desperation in comments such as that in line 1060, where he is prepared to forfeit all his wealth if he can avoid the inevitable bedroom acrobatics. (Note that what happens in the bedroom is vital to any marriage in the Wife's opinion.)
We laugh at him, for surely he has what he deserves; and yet, we are laughing at her too, an old woman insisting on her conjugal rights with such a worthless specimen of manhood and having to listen to his blunt, ungentlemanly criticisms of her shortcomings.
There is some visual humour too in the way that the knight marries secretly and then disappears until he is carried off to bed and lies tossing and turning, putting off the inevitable, whilst she smiles serenely and innocently asks if this is the way all men treat their wives.
Once again the voice of the Wife comes through strongly in remarks such as the suggestion that being a man's wife is not always synonymous with being his love.
Can you find other examples of humour of these kinds in the tale?
As with many of the tales, this one is written in rhyming iambic couplets. This regular metre has the advantage of being fairly close to the natural rhythms of speech, which is vital as Chaucer was writing for an audience rather than a reader.
The thoughts that the lines express are not necessarily contained within the couplet, as often the sense runs over into the next one. If a couplet is end stopped by punctuation, the thought is revived and built upon by conjunctions. This gives the poem some of its flow. As well as this, rhyme and alliteration are employed successfully to link ideas together.
The addition of colloquialisms and homely imagery help to establish character,create realism and add interest.
For alternative interpretations on marriage look at the tales of the Clerk, Franklin and Merchant. "The Man of Law's Tale" provides a different view on the role of women.
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